Lessons in economic survival from Turin

An Italian auto center could have gone the way of Detroit, but it has built on its legacy and concentrated on changing its transportation system.

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Turin lost its dominance in the Italian auto industry but has remade itself, partly by investing in modern transit.

An Italian auto center could have gone the way of Detroit, but it has built on its legacy and concentrated on changing its transportation system.

When in 1993 the Italian Parliament finally agreed to allow citizens to elect their own mayors, the people of Turin picked not a ‘pol’ but a professor, Valentino Castellani. Turin was in what Americans make think of as the perilous “Detroit position,” with giant automaker Fiat still ratcheting down local employment from a high of 130,000 to today’s 20,000.

Italy wanted more employment shifted to the south where jobs were needed; Fiat complied, seeing the bright side of lower labor costs. And Turin staggered.

Former mayor Castellani, looking back to the political situation in 1993, described it this November to a small delegation led by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, as a “confrontation between two parties: the party of those, probably the majority, that were convinced of the irreversible decline of the city, and the party of those that instead were confident that a renaissance for Torino was possible.”

Turin, long accustomed to relying on Fiat for everything, stared at an uncertain future. Having been once ruled by kings and then beneficently bossed by the Agnelli family that founded Fiat, Turin finally had to, in the words of Castellani, “think on its own.”

Mayor Bing is well aware of present-day Detroit’s eerily parallel plight to the one Turin faced. Few sister city arrangements have as many parallel profiles. Both Turin and Detroit hit peak population levels decades ago (1.2 million for Turin in 1975 and 1.9 million for Detroit in the early 1950s). Both then endured decline that by the turn of the century had reduced Turin by 865,000 people, Detroit by 900,000.

Both had been built on the bedrock of a working-class culture. Both in 2006 capitalized on special events to draw positive attention: the Winter Olympics in Turin and the Super Bowl in Detroit. Both are home to major philanthropies willing to invest in the future.

Turin certainly looks like the target for Detroit to hit, the model of how — with strategy, serious money, and steady execution — any place can focus its assets and convert its liabilities.

Turin built and executed an Urban Master Plan and two stages of strategic planning. Local banks joined with Italy, the European Union, and the Turin-based Compagnia di San Paolo (a foundation with $8 billion in assets) to fund hundreds of millions of dollars toward a stronger city and economy.

Maybe it helps that Turin is older. It dates from the first century A.D., while Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived by canoe in 1701, “just” 300 years ago, to found what is now Detroit. But Turin has endured deeper insults. When Italy became a unified nation in 1861, Turin was the first capital. But four years later, the capital, along with all the economic benefits, moved to Florence.

Castellani, recalled the corner-turning period for Turin, when he used a then-controversial phrase, “Not only Fiat,” to tell citizens that the auto industry would in future be only a part of the region’s economy. Mayor Bing, speaking on a panel in the Teatro Vittorio midway through the week’s visit, echoed that theme — that Detroit’s auto industry would remain a key anchor but that the major employment base would likely shift to health and a wide range of entrepreneurial enterprises that go largely unnoticed today.

What Detroiters could not fail to notice, in contrast to their own vastly spread out and partially deserted city, was the intact fabric of a densely populated city on a footprint a third the size of Detroit. Turin is nearly a seamless string of buildings centuries old, most of modest height, nearly all home to offices and apartments, with retail at the street level.

Equally conspicuous is the breathtaking boldness of Turin’s modern transit infrastructure — new underground rail forming a network connecting what they call the ‘backbones’ of the city, serving an above-ground world planned to be parks and grand boulevards integrating biking, walking, driving, and streetcar transit. Today’s Turin is a a dazzling dance of merging and separating trams, trucks, cars, bicycles — people on foot, on streets lined with tall trees, a dose of old urbanism in contrast to Detroit’s heavy dominance of cars, trucks, more cars — and often few pedestrians or cycles in sight.

And in meeting after meeting, whether with the regional (yes, regional!) Piemonte chamber of commerce, or the head of Turin’s aggressively expanding polytechnical university, Detroiters heard the remarkable Turin narrative — a dogged commitment to build on the legacy concentration of design and engineering talent, to attract and hold a new generation of university-trained youth, and to aim for global leadership. Turin’s on a roll.

Detroit is gearing up. It’s Detroit’s turn.


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